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Fee-based Net content in infancy

Many revenue-hungry Net sites long to stick a price tag on content they have been giving away, but they may find a tough road ahead.

Many revenue-hungry Net sites long to stick a price tag on content they have been giving away. But it's tough getting people to buy the cow when they've been getting the milk for free.

This could be true of visitors to Cowles New Media's news service Media Daily, which has decided to suspend plans to charge its readers. Last month, Cowles said it would charge for access to the site by April, rotating three price quotes in its notice to readers: $99, $149, and $249 for a yearly subscription.

"Although our test showed that a large number of our readers would pay for Media Daily, the Web is growing so fast that it is important for our long-term growth to expose this new market to free access," said William Duke, publisher of Media Central, the portal site for all Cowles publications.

However, he added hopefully: "We'll be paid someday."

Cowles's retreat reflects the route most online content sites are taking: pulling in revenue from advertising sales while working to build brand power and strong reputations. But print publications--which have higher overhead than Net publications--charge customers and also sell ads.

Many ventures on the Web have been built on the expectation that audiences eventually will want to pay for content. While some high-profile names such as the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition and Playboy have been able to turn that corner with varying degrees of success, the Web's law of commercial Darwinism will leave others to whither away.

Adam Schoenfeld, senior analyst at Jupiter Communications, agreed that some sites could charge for content--but far from all of them. He cited expert financial information and fantasy sports leagues as two examples of content for which some Netizens are likely to pay.

However, with sites such as Media Daily, "news coverage of both media and technology is available for free in a lot of other places, and it's done well," Schoenfeld said. "It's a given that you can't sell what someone else is giving away for free."

A small few on the Net have seen some success in charging readers, but in the case of the Wall Street Journal and Playboy, they are national, well-known, and specialized. And those publications' online subscriptions compose only a fraction of the total customer base, showing that fee-based Net content is still in its infancy.

For example, the Journal's online edition announced last week that it had surpassed the 200,000-subscriber "milestone." The Journal charges $49 per year or $29 for those with a print subscription.

Without marketing its site, Playboy has sold more than 25,000 online memberships priced at up to $60 per year. And, perhaps an exception, Microsoft's Slate, which began charging $19.95 per year in February, has garnered 10,000 subscribers.

"We're convinced that subscriptions may still have some life online, but it's got to be highly targeted information that isn't available anywhere else for free," Schoenfeld noted.